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It's Alive! How to Use Apple Live Photos

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With iOS 9, Apple introduced an interesting feature: Live Photos. This new format blends still photos with short video. While at first blush that might sound gimmicky, the result is actually very compelling. In this tutorial you'll learn what Live Photos are, how to take them, and what they might mean for your photography.

Just What Are Live Photos, Anyway?

Live Photos are regular, 12 megapixel images captured with the iOS camera app. As well as the actual photo, the camera also captures a second and a half of video either side of you pushing the shutter button. This video is blended with the image in your Camera Roll. As you scroll through you'll see some images shift and move. If you hold down on the image, the full Live Photo will play. 

At the moment you can only take Live Photos with an iPhone 6s, 6s Plus, and 7 but you can view them on any iPhone running iOS 9 or Mac running El Capitan. In both cases, you have to use the Photos app. You can share them on social networks by converting them to GIFs or videos using an app like Live 2 GIF. If the format proves popular, you can expect social networks to allow for native uploads.

Although Live Photos sounds like a gimmick (and other companies such as HTC have tried it before without much success) I've found Live Photos to be a really fun new addition to the iOS Camera app. I never intended to start taking (or liking) Live Photos; when I upgraded to my new iPhone the option to capture them was turned on by default. 

After a few days of using my phone I realised that every picture I'd taken was actually a Live Photo. When I started playing with them I was shocked; the results were great! None of the photos were anything to write home about: most were snapshots captured at parties, or during every day activities. What was incredible, though, was how they recorded the ambiance of a scene. In particular, all my party selfies had the people dancing in the background and the music blaring; a regular image just couldn't contain all this detail. Once I realised this, I was hooked.

How to Take Live Photos

Taking Live Photos is easy—the Camera app does it by default once you upgrade to iOS 9—however, taking good Live Photos requires a bit more thought.

Although Live Photos are on by default, you can easily turn them off by accident. To make sure your iPhone is set up to capture them, open the Camera app. The bullseye icon in the top row represents Live Photos. If it's yellow then they're turned on, if not, tap it to turn them on. 

live symbollive symbollive symbol
The yellow bullseye means I'm taking Live Photos.

Live Photos capture one and a half seconds before and after you press the shutter button. While you have the Camera app open it is constantly recording and overwriting what it has recorded in order to keep the second and a half before you press the shutter button. Similarly, once you press it, the camera keeps recording. This changes how you take pictures.

Before Live Photos, I would raise my iPhone, take the picture and then immediately lower it. With Live Photos, this is awful. The video, rather than capturing the subject, is just of me raising and then lowering the camera. Instead, you have to raise your iPhone, pause for around two seconds, take the picture, and then hold it still for another two seconds. Four seconds might not sound like much but it takes conscious effort to keep it there for that length of time, it's not a natural action. Once you get used to it though, the results are worth it.

Why Live Photos are Awesome

What makes Live Photos work is how they are able to capture the emotion and feel of a place. Yes, it's possible to do that with a regular photo but it requires a lot more thought. If you want to show movement in a scene, you'll need to bring a tripod and take a long exposure. With a Live Photo, you'll capture it automatically. The results may not be as traditional or printable, but for viewing digitally that's not a problem.

Live Photos need to be seen as a new and experimental medium that blends photo and video. When every device you own is capable of creating and viewing both, why draw a line? Capturing a Live Photo only requires a tiny increase in effort relative to capturing a still image. There is no reason not to record as much information as possible about a scene—even if that is sound and video—when you take a picture. Digital storage is cheap; you don't have to use the extra details but having them available provides far more options further down the line.

Let's look at two scenarios where Live Photos add to the image. Imagine for a second you're taking a picture of a group of your friends. In the second before you take the photo everyone is getting close and putting their arms around each other. As you push the shutter button they all pose. In the second after, everyone relaxes and laughs. With a normal photo all you capture is the single posed instant. With a Live Photo, you get the full moment.

Or perhaps you're wandering the streets in a foreign city at night. You see a street food vendor lit up by his cart and want to capture the moment. The resulting picture could be incredibly compelling, however, the Live Photo will also include the street sounds, the vendor's motions as he cooks, and the movement on the street. As before, rather than just capturing a single instant, you can get the full feel for a place; the sounds and movement as well as the frozen image.

Wrapping Up

Live Photos are very new and their place has yet to be defined. After playing around with them for a few months, however, I've found that some occasions where they work really well and others where they add nothing to what I was trying to capture. There are no set rules as to what works and doesn’t.

A simple portrait has little in the way of sound or motion but they’ve been some of my favourite Live Photos. A nightclub or busy street market, has sound, movement, smells (which sadly you can't capture yet) and a whole lot more but sometimes a Live Photo just doesn’t work. Play around and see where you take your best Live Photos.

The best thing about Live Photos is that there is almost no additional cost to capturing them. They just use a bit more storage space and require you to hold your phone still for a few seconds longer. For that reason, I leave the option to take Live Photos turned on all the time. Even if only one in ten images I capture benefits from the additional data, it's worth it.

At the moment Live Photos are very much on the edge of things. Where Apple goes though, other companies soon follow. I'd expect in the next year or two for the concept to become a lot more accepted. Now, while it's still in its infancy, is the time to explore it. 

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